Abraham Lincoln is fascinating. Read his speeches, articles or the letters he left behind and he sounds amazingly modern. It is really incredible—pick a year in his life and study anything written by anyone else and then compare it to Lincoln and it’s like he’s speaking another language, he was so far ahead of his time. He was a ruthless politician but a compassionate leader, and while we’ve turned him into a saint and a paragon of American virtue, he was very human and a huge part of what makes him so interesting is the gap between the Lincoln they teach us in school and the Lincoln who actually lived.
Enter Steven Spielberg and his biopic Lincoln, adapted by Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s stellar Team of Rivals. The prospect of Spielberg, with his care and dedication to historical accuracy, taking on the Civil War is exciting, and that he’s reteaming with Kushner, who co-wrote Munich, adds to the allure. Munich is the only movie Spielberg’s made since Schindler’s List that matters in any way beyond the purely technical. Munich is complicated and morally ambiguous and it didn’t shy away from examining the long-term consequences of retribution. If Lincoln is even half so complex, it would be a special film indeed.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as complex, or even half as complex, as Munich. The trailer was presented by Spielberg and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars as Robert Todd Lincoln, during a Google+ “hangout” (which, adorable Google, but who the f*ck is using Google+?) last night, and while the historical detail is crazy and yes, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is uncanny, the trailer seems…cold. Hollow, even. There’s speechifying, grandiose statements, shots of epic battle rendered in slow motion, and it feels like a particularly well executed historical recreation. This has been my problem with Spielberg over the last decade: All the technical proficiency you could ask for, and none of the heart.
But it’s just a trailer. The Civil War is/was the single greatest conflict in American history, a deeply scarring period that still echoes in our collective conscious today. Two and a half minutes is not long enough to give us a sense of whether or not all that the era represents has been captured. And I never, EVER, want to write off Daniel Day-Lewis. If anyone could shoulder a mediocre film and make it great, it’s Day-Lewis. It’ll be worth watching for him alone, we all know that. I just worry about Spielberg, who makes a great looking war film but who has been kind of skint on deeper ideals recently, glossing over the very real conflicts and personal tragedies that shaped Lincoln’s life, especially at the end, with depression and deep mourning dragging him down. I hope, though, that this is the film that Lincoln’s extraordinary life deserves.
In keeping with my streak of absurdly early Oscar predictions Lincoln will get 10 nominations. This movie will have to suck hard in order to not get pretty much every nomination it possibly can. I mean, War Horse got six nominations and that movie blew.